“A few days later King Agrippa and his wife, Bernice, visited Caesarea to welcome Festus to his new post. After several days, Festus brought up Paul’s case to the king. ‘I have a man on my hands here, a prisoner left by Felix. When I was in Jerusalem, the high priests and Jewish leaders brought a bunch of accusations against him and wanted me to sentence him to death. I told them that wasn’t the way we Romans did things. Just because a man is accused, we don’t throw him out to the dogs. We make sure the accused has a chance to face his accusers and defend himself of the charges. So when they came down here I got right on the case. I took my place in the courtroom and put the man on the stand.

“‘The accusers came at him from all sides, but their accusations turned out to be nothing more than arguments about their religion and a dead man named Jesus, who the prisoner claimed to be alive. Since I’m a newcomer here and don’t understand everything involved in a case like this, I asked if he be willing to go to Jerusalem and be tried there. Paul refused and demanded a hearing before His Majesty in our highest court. So I ordered him returned to custody until I could send him to Caesar in Rome.'” Acts 25:13-21 (The Message).

Festus’ story sounds quite accurate except for one small twist. He gave his reason for wanting to send Paul back to Jerusalem for trial as ignorance concerning the ins and outs of a case like this. Luke said it was because he wanted to curry favour with the Jews. Which version was correct? When the Jews asked him to send Paul back to Jerusalem for trial, he had refused, citing Caesarea as the place of his jurisdiction over Paul. Why the sudden change of mind?

When the Jews came to Caesarea to put their case before Festus, the sight of Paul coming into the courtroom sent them into a frenzy of accusations. Paul’s defense did nothing to calm them down and Festus must have realised that he was a hot potato. Regardless of the legitimacy of their case, he had a howling mob on his hands whom he had better appease as best he could if he did not want a riot and a bloodbath in Judea.

He had quickly changed his tune, magnanimously offering Paul the option of returning to Jerusalem to answer their charges. Perhaps he knew that he would choose the only other option open to him – trial before Caesar – in which case Paul’s decision was irrevocable – and Festus would neatly have got rid of him without dirtying his hands.

He put his problem to King Agrippa in a plausible way to cover up the real motive for his unexpected move. The issue was not whether Paul was guilty of a crime punishable by death or not — he was certainly not stupid enough to be taken in by the Jews’ emotional frenzy — but how to get rid of Paul without being unjust and at the same time calming the Jews enough to stop the inevitable riot that Paul’s release would spark.

Perhaps the king would come up with a satisfactory solution that would take the responsibility off Festus’ hands. The king’s visit could not have come at a better time — except for one small glitch. Paul’s appeal to Caesar could not be changed.

Festus had another problem. He knew that the case against Paul was all about an internal religious quarrel — he made that clear to Agrippa. What sort of governor would he look like, sending Paul to Caesar with a petty charge like that, as though he were incapable of dealing with it? He needed Agippa’s rubber stamp on the case to make it look more serious and needing Caesar’s intervention.

While all this was going on, Paul was still firmly in the hands of a God who always works everything according to the purpose of His will. Whatever negotiations were going on in the earthly scene, God was inexorably moving His son into position to get him to Rome — at Rome’s expense, mind you — to take His message to the heart and hub of the Roman Empire. Festus had inadvertently played right into the hands of a sovereign God and all of heaven relaxed! God had done it again!

Luella Campbell

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